Parable of The Two Sons, by Father Basil William Maturin

“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?”

They answered, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” – Matthew 21:28-32

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There are to be found all over Christendom a number of men and women whom it is difficult to classify. They are to all appearance neither positively on the side of Christ, nor actively against Him; they are certainly not religious, but neither are they definitely irreligious. I think if we were to analyze their position we should find that their spiritual life had never yet awakened into action. They have not rejected God, for they have not yet consciously heard His Voice. How many live thus, with a certain amount of religion that has been traditional They have been brought up to say their prayers and to go to church, and from time to time to go to the Sacraments; they have accepted what they were taught in childhood, they have no doubts, no perplexities, for doubts and perplexities imply at least that the mind has awakened to the importance of religious questions. And thus while they are by no means irreligious, still less opposed to religion, they are certainly not religious. Religion has no real influence upon their lives, they are in no sense controlled or influenced by the Will of God, nor has it ever occurred to them that God has any special purpose for them in life. They are like those described in the Parable as standing all the day idle because no man has hired them. They have not hired them- selves out to the powers of evil, nor have they yet heard the voice of the Householder calling them to work for Him, and so, as far as religion is concerned, they are neither for nor against it What religion they have costs them nothing, they have never made a sacrifice for it in their lives, it has never put them to any trouble either in thought or action.

Such are a vast number of people, neither bad nor good, with no very harrowing sense of the need of God, no power of prayer, no effort to rise up to the supernatural, no real knowledge of the supernatural to haunt them with a consciousness of their own narrowness or the incompleteness of their lives.

Now to most people living in this way there comes the time when our Lord claims them. There breaks in upon this life of nature the Call of God – the awakening Call – bringing with it, if but for a moment, the vivid realization of His Personal being and claim upon them. He who gave them life, demands that it be used in His service – ‘Go work in My vineyard.’

There are strange events in the life of most of us, things that make people pause and think, things that raise questionings in the mind; and many of them can be explained, and others are incapable of being explained. But when this call comes there is no doubt, no possibility of explaining away, except by a process of self-deception. The man who hears that Voice, however it comes, is certain of two things – that there is a God, and that He has called him in some way to work for and to serve Him. What that work is, or how it is to be done, is another question, but that he has been called by God to come out of that listless life and live more seriously he has no doubt For the moment the soul has been awakened to the reality of life, to the awful reality of God’s personal being, it has been awakened as really as one is awakened out of sleep by the voice of one calling, and the passage is as vivid as the passage from dreamland to waking. It is a supreme moment, everything depends upon what he who has heard that awakening Voice will do. He certainly can never be the same again. A man may go on for years unawakened, but when once he has been stirred and roused, and has felt something of the claim of God, and then turns back to the old negative life of nature, he finds that he can’t live in it as he was before, he deteriorates, he does wrong things which he formerly was not tempted to. For that act of turning away is a resistance of God, an act of rebellion. He then sets his will against the Will of God in a way in which he never consciously had done it before, and he becomes defiant He knows what he ought to do, and he deliberately refuses to do it, and then refusing to rise to God’s standard he finds himself unable to keep to his own.

Now there are no doubt many men who at once surrender themselves to the claim of God when it comes thus clearly and strongly into their lives, and there are doubtless others who at once reject it. Saint Paul says he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision. (Acts 26:19) Saint Matthew describes his own surrender in words of touching simplicity: ‘As Jesus passed forth from thence, He saw a man named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom; and He saith unto him, Follow Me. And he arose and followed Him.’ (Matthew 9:9) That was Saint Matthew’s awakening and surrender to the claim of God. On the other hand, the young ruler, when he awoke to God’s claim upon him in all its fulness, went away sad at what he was called upon to do. (Matthew 19:22) We are left in uncertainty as to whether he ever afterwards obeyed the call or not

But the majority of people are not so prompt either in obeying or rejecting the call of God when they first hear it There are many middle courses. Multitudes of bypaths can be found between a direct act of surrender and a direct act of rebellion. In these middle ways many torture themselves. Not a few lose themselves. The claims of the old easy life are great, and the call of God always makes life look stem. When it breaks in upon the soul with all its awakening power, the will not unfrequently refuses to rise to the demands of God, and yet it shrinks from a deliberate act of rebellion, and so it hesitates and holds aloof from any direct course. And the consequence is often a life of compromise, in which neither the enjoyment of the old life nor the peace of the surrender to God is attained, but there is a torturing of conscience and a sacrifice of the full measure of the rewards of both worlds.

Now in the Parable under consideration our Lord describes for us two typical classes of persons represented by the Two Sons, as they hear the Voice of God their Father calling them to come out from the idle life of worldliness, a life at least in which the highest powers of their nature have no capacity for full development, into a life of direct service to Him: ‘Son, go work today in My vineyard.’ He claims them as His sons, and He asserts His right to demand their service. They meet the call neither by direct obedience nor direct disobedience; the son who obeyed answered his father’s command by saying at first that he would not obey, and the son who disobeyed answered his father promptly, ‘I go, sir.’

The call brought out in each a certain side of the character which was not the most real or the strongest In each case there was a prompt response to the call, which was at least in a measure superficial; it was not the final answer of the will, but an answer of a part of their nature. It was, in a word, the answer of inclination rather than of the ultimate resolution of the will, and therefore it was not the answer of the self, as the event proved. Yet if either had been asked when they made, each of them, his answer, whether he really intended to do as he had said, he would not have hesitated in answering, ‘Certainly, I have no intention or desire to do otherwise than I have said.’ They did not really know themselves. The call came to them, and it proved, as such calls always do prove, a means of revealing them to themselves. To the one it disclosed a nature with strong inclinations to rebel against God’s interference in his life. The whole surface was swept and stirred by currents running counter to the Will of God, but in fact it was ultimately ruled and controlled by a will which, when brought face to face with God’s call, was not prepared deliberately to disobey.

To the other it disclosed a nature with good intentions but with a will that was not strong enough to correspond with the Will of God. The natural inclinations and the superficial desires were excellent, but there was a fundamental weakness of character in the face of difficulties.

Each of these men would have judged himself as being different from what he really was, and indeed at first so would others. The one was to all appearances very much worse than he proved himself to be, the other very much better. And Christ, as always, entered into their lives to sift and prove and judge them. ‘This Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’ (Luke 2:34,35) The coming of Christ into the life separates the wise from the foolish, the strong from the weak, the good from the bad.

It is an interesting fact, and yet intensely true to nature, that the first result of this call is not the final result, it does not manifest the real character, but the more superficial side. It does not, in fact, bring out the depths of the character, but the natural inclinations, and these are not any real test of character at all. The worst men in the world have often been men with good intuitions, but wholly ruled by inclination, feeling, desire, and the evil inclinations have eventually proved the stronger, and in the end have gained complete control, leaving the better inclinations to live on merely in the form of feeble and unfulfilled resolutions, proving a fruitful source of self-deception.

On the other hand, some of the holiest men have had strong passions and the very worst tendencies to fight against; but the will has chosen and clung to what is good, and eventually, when they came to know Him, to God, and has fought its way upward against these strong tides and currents that seemed often as if they must swamp it

Now when some very strong demand is put upon such men, appealing to all that is highest within them, it is natural, it is necessary, that the first response should be the answer of inclination, not of will.

The call of God comes to a man struggling with himself, battling with passions that seem ever ready to overcome him, conscious only of how strong the evil tendencies of his nature are, and of what a rare thing a complete victory is. To such a man the call of God comes, ‘Go work in My vineyard,’ a call to something vastly higher than he has ever before imagined, to a life of personal service to God; and nature, exhausted and despairing, answers at once, ‘I will not’ That is the answer that springs at once to his lips, prompted by a nature that knows more of its failures than of its successes, of the evil that is in it than of the good. But it was the answer of the surface, not of the depths of his being – of inclination, not of the will; that came later. When the inclination and the evil tendencies had had their say, the question came back to the will, and the response of the will was true. There was a revulsion of feeling, the will stemmed the tide of inclination and carried the whole self with it, ‘afterward he repented and went.’

The conflict between the two sides of the man is brought out by the call of God; one side says, ‘I will not,’ the other says, ‘I will,’ and the victory is shown by the event, and by nothing else – he went. That is the one point upon which our Lord laid stress, ‘Whether of them twain did the will of His Father?’ It does not affect the value of the action that he did not want to go, that his obedience was the result of a struggle. Our Lord appeals to the onlookers, to those who are the witnesses of this interior strife. Anyone can see, the true response was the response of the will.

Yes, those who stood by and listened to our Lord’s graphic description of the conflict which many of them must have at some time or other experienced in their own hearts, perhaps were even then experiencing under the stimulating influence of His Presence, gave unhesitatingly the right judgment, yet it is not so easy to see the obvious truth of the answer when the struggle is actually raging within ourselves.

Which of us can? Which of us has not felt that the strength of the inner opposition marred, if it did not destroy, the value of the act When you are called upon to do some difficult thing, to make some real sacrifice, and all the strength of natural inclinations is against it, and the answer to the command of God comes quickly from many parts of your nature, ‘I will not,’ how hard it is to feel that the only matter of real importance is, whether, in the teeth of all this storm, the will obeys, ‘whether of them twain did the will of his Father.’ Indeed, so far from mitigating the value of the act, it is very much enhanced by the fact of all the opposition presented to the will, for the will endures a severe test and triumphs:

‘For I am ‘ware it is the seed of act
God holds appraising in His hollow palm;
Not act grown great thence in the world below,
Leafage and branchage vulgar eyes admire.’

Yet if we could realize this in the time when a command of God brings out the conflict it would be a great encouragement

It does not matter that you do not want to do that difficult work, that you do not like to say your prayers at any given time, that you do not want to do that unselfish act. You cannot help that; the question, the only question is, will you do it in spite of all this inner opposition? May we not say with reverence that our Lord did not want to drink the cup of His agony in Gethsemane, He shrank from it so much that He prayed that if it were possible it might pass from Him. But He did not turn away, amidst all the terror and shrinking of nature, the will never swerved from the Will of God.

And if the answer of the first son is full of encouragement, the answer of the second is no less full of warning. For here again the conflict is clearly seen and the two answers are heard, only it is all the reverse of the former. This man had excellent intentions, he was attracted by what was good and noble, his imagination was easily appealed to by visions and dreams of sacrifice and service. All that was good, indeed, appealed so strongly to his imagination and emotions, that he probably never realized how little they affected his life. But life does not consist in beautiful dreams^ or lofty ideals, but in action, in the effort to fulfil such ideals. It was easy to stir this man’s feeling, but very difficult indeed to move his will His intentions and inclinations were so far in advance of his actions, that it would have been perhaps difficult for him to perceive what a bad man he really was.

And the call of God shows these two sides, the conflict and the result.

No sooner did he receive the call to a life of service to God than all the best inclinations of his nature were aroused, and answered with a hundred voices, ‘I go, sir.’ There was a movement, a stir, a sympathetic thrill in response. But the call involved a specific act, a giving up of one kind of life and an entering upon another; the will must rise and move – but it remained inactive. Down below from the depths of the nature comes a voice unheard amidst the chorus of eager response, and it answers doggedly, ‘I will not go.’ But the whole surface of the nature is in such a flurry of excitement that this answer is unheeded. Yet it is the answer of the will, and when all the eager voices above have worn themselves out, it quietly carries the day. ‘He went not.’

The value of a good act of obedience is not depreciated by any amount of opposition within the soul, nor is the evil of an act of disobedience one whit lessened by the fact of the best intentions in the world. Beneath a fierce antagonism from a hundred evil inclinations the will may press forward and do what it has been bidden, and triumph. And beneath a surface all responsive and eager in its delight in what is good, the will may doggedly refuse to stir, nay, may turn its face hellwards, and fail.

Such is the encouragement and the warning of the Parable, and in its historical setting the warning is stem. The Jew had ever been making ‘his boast of God, that he knew His Will, and approved the things that are more excellent, and was confident that he himself was a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, and a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and of truth in the law.’ (Romans 2:18,19,20) At the call of God he was ever saying, ‘I go, sir.’ Yet he went not The publicans and harlots felt their sinfulness, they could not, dared not, lift up so much as their eyes to heaven, yet when the call came, and the Voice of God was heard bidding them rise and work for Him, though many evil passions and long-indulged habits of sin held them back and cried out, ‘I will not go,’ in bitter penitence and with many an agonising struggle they rose and went, and entered into the Kingdom of Heaven, while the Scribes and Pharisees were shut out